The reason German actor Max Schreck was such a convincing, terrifying Dracula in Nosferatu was because he really was a vampire. And so, for that matter, was Nosferatu’s legendary director, F.W. Murnau – although the life force Murnau drained was the creativity of his colleagues, sacrificed in the service of making movie art.
That, at least, is the delicious premise of Shadow of the Vampire. E. Elias Merhige’s kicky, elaborately constructed fantasy is both an erudite homage to Murnau’s 1922 silent horror classic and a high spirited meditation on bloodsucking, filmmaking, and the correlation between the two. It’s also a feast of fangs bared acting by two exemplars of the form, John Malkovich and Willem Dafoe.
”You want to eat the writer – be my guest,” Murnau (Malkovich) tells his demanding star (Dafoe), who sniffs and slavers. Steven Katz’s script is larded with an icily funny understanding of the devouring egotism of filmmakers, but Merhige keeps his own film poised between effective horror and the abyss of camp. He mixes a palette of syrupy darkness just this side of old timey black and white with actual B&W reconstructed scenes from ”Nosferatu.”
In such an enterprise, he couldn’t have fed on a better cast. Udo Kier (as producer Albin Grau) and Eddie Izzard (as leading man Gustav von Wangerheim), two outsize performers in their own right, seem demure by comparison with the succulent ferocity of Malkovich, who in turn is matched and bested by Dafoe, whose exciting performance shades terrifying thirst with poignant, century old tristesse. ”If it’s not in the frame, it doesn’t exist!” Murnau decrees, oblivious to the carnage as the camera rolls. Didn’t Warren Beatty say that about Madonna’s philosophy of life? Come to think of it, doesn’t she exhibit century old endurance and a vampiric smile too?